PULLMAN – The Washington State Cougars may have saved their football season Saturday night, coming back from a 21-0 first-quarter deficit to beat Utah on the road. The win makes a bowl game path much clearer.
Not just because the Cougars crossed off one win of a required six, although that’s certainly no insignificant feat on the road against a quality opponent. More important is that the Cougars continue to quickly improve thanks to talent that either wasn’t present or hadn’t manifested itself at the beginning of the season.
Many of the plays that made the comeback came courtesy of players who are still in the developmental stages of their careers. There was redshirt freshman Charleston White breaking up a pair of fourth-down passes or redshirt freshman receiver Robert Lewis throwing his 5-foot-9, 162-pound frame into a defensive back to spring Vince Mayle for the game-winning touchdown.
The coaches feel that linebacker Frankie Luvu can contribute, so his redshirt was burned in the fifth game of the season. Those young players were undoubtedly part of the reason WSU found itself in a 21-point hole, but they were a bigger factor in climbing out of it.
“It’s a big, big step for the program,” quarterback Connor Halliday, a fifth-year senior, said after the game. “I don’t know if it was too big a stage,” he added. “I think it was the first time a lot of the guys on our team have played in a loud stadium. We play a lot of young guys, as you guys know.”
The upside to playing so many young players – alongside the fact that they have proven to be indisputably better than the older players they’re replacing, at least so far – is that it’s almost unthinkable that they won’t improve the more often they play.
Jeremiah Allison, a junior linebacker, showed flashes against Nevada, he was good against Oregon, and the Utah game brought out his best game yet.
“I think really it was a step forward pretty much from everybody,” coach Mike Leach said. “It was a step forward on defense because it was the most complete game I’ve seen our defense play since I’ve been here.”
In three years, the most complete defensive game Leach has seen came with a secondary that started three freshmen and a sophomore, with a starting linebacker, Allison, and defensive end, Darryl Paulo, who combined for just two tackles in the season-opener.
The Cougars are favored this week at home against California, a team they handily beat on the road last season. The Golden Bears are a vastly improved team in their own right – they’ve already won two more games than they did all last season.
But it’s hard to deny that WSU is getting better every week and if that trend continues this week the Cougars should be well-positioned to pick up their second conference win and take another big step on the road to the postseason.
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